Friday, 24 June 2011

Not only "only" and "not only"

In “If only …” (last week’s article) we looked at the need to position the words only and not only correctly. “I’ve only been to the mall six times” is incorrect; it should be: “I’ve been to the mall only six times.” (Did you manage to correct my deliberately misformulated closing sentence in that article?)

The need for accuracy applies to other modifiers as well, e.g. largely, especially and mostly. Consider the difference between these sentences:

·         This is largely true [i.e. not entirely true] in relation to softwood trees.
·         This is true largely in relation to softwood trees [i.e. less in relation to other trees].

Some readers may object that since the context will often lead us to the correct interpretation despite the mispositioning of the modifier, people like teachers (and me!) shouldn’t make a fuss about it – and to some extent it’s tempting to agree: if the hearer interprets the intended meaning correctly and effective communication has taken place, why not just let it go? Why insist on correctness?

The problem with this kind of thinking is one we face in other areas of life as well, and it boils down to questions like: Where do you draw the line? How wrong should something be allowed to be before it is exceeds the bounds of acceptability – whether it’s breaking a minor rule of etiquette, exceeding the speed limit, or tolerating verbal abuse? Ultimately the simplest solution is simply to do the right thing, and acceptability will follow – in language as in other matters.

So we may as well try and get it right, especially when we’re writing – it’s like making the effort to add figures correctly if we’re going to bother to add them at all.

Being correct and precise as often as possible is surely much more satisfying than being content with an attitude of “It’s good enough if it’s more or less OK.”   –ws–

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